Leading with Inclusivity: Navigating the Changing Landscape of Diversity and Equity

Sep 01, 2023

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court rejected affirmative action in college admissions, leading business leaders to ask whether their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts could be interpreted as unlawful.

Following the ruling, at least one US senator sent threatening letters to hundreds of private employers warning them that certain diversity practices could subject them costly litigation.

And other companies are already being sued over policies they have enacted on social issues such as race and gender. For example, this week a conservative legal organization sued Target on behalf of an investor over LGBTQ-themed merchandise.

Meanwhile, companies are facing customers and clients who are telling them that they won’t work with teams that aren’t diverse or buy products from companies whose workforces don’t reflect the diverse world in which we live.

All of this, coupled with legitimate research questioning how effective the billion-dollar DEI industry even is, leaves leaders wondering how to make sense of the conflicting priorities and practices.

The advice I’m giving these days is to focus your efforts on inclusion. Studies show companies with more inclusive leadership are more profitable, innovative, and winning the talent war. So how best to practice inclusive leadership?

1. Be vulnerable and curious

Recently, I worked with the management committee of a large financial institution where some members were feeling anxious and uncomfortable with the firm’s DEI initiatives. Specifically, they were asking what to do when they were from majority groups and confused about what steps they might take.

My counsel was straightforward: Embrace and voice your uncertainties!

As a leader, when you exhibit vulnerability ("I'm uncertain about this") paired with genuine curiosity ("What kind of leadership do you need from me at this juncture?"), you create an environment where employees feel psychologically safe to discuss what they think will make them successful. You are role modeling openness and asking for feedback. Leaders are the tuning fork for teams.

When you play a note that says, it’s okay to ask questions and be uncomfortable, it makes it safe for team members to do the same. All of this leads to a culture of open dialogue and collaboration, enhancing the collective journey toward inclusivity.

2. Be an advocate and a sponsor for those you want to include

For years, I have been a co-designer and developer of leadership programs for emerging talent. What we have discovered is the most useful strategy for retaining top talent is clear sponsorship. If you care deeply about recruiting and retaining top talent from a diverse talent pool, you must commit to an individual’s success proactively.

That means finding the person you are supporting the visibility and growth opportunities they need to be successful. Inclusive leaders proactively provide substantive access to a diverse set of employees, nurturing their career progression.

3. Be a compassionate leader

Compassionate leaders combine empathy with a desire to help. Let me give you an example. A common practice among many of my clients are the creation of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), typically comprised of employees from under-represented groups who meet to discuss better ways of creating a more inclusive workplace.

Over the years, I have met with many of these groups, observing, engaging, and providing valuable insights to aid their work. Lately, though, I’ve seen a trend that worries me. Many ERGs have become spaces to voice grievances to leaders who agree to listen. While I applaud the empathy, I’m struck that many ERGs lack concrete solutions or the resources to take any kind of action.

When a leader tells me they have been invited to an ERG, I counsel them to practice compassionate leadership. This entails not only active listening, validating, and understanding others' perspectives but also asking the critical question: "How can I assist you?"

Compassionate leaders transcend empathy by boldly embracing challenges and extending offers of help. In essence, compassionate leadership paves the way for meaningful action, fostering an environment where empathy evolves into tangible progress.

Diversity is not an aspiration, it is simply a fact that defines the nature of the global talent pool. Inclusivity, on the other hand, is an act. It is a way of leading people who have been historically underrepresented. And practicing inclusive leadership is not under any legal attack.

If you, as a leader, help those you lead feel included by sharing with them that you too feel vulnerable sometimes, you have helped them. When you mentor and sponsor a talented person who comes from a different background from you, there is a more inclusive environment, and you are developing future leaders.

As you practice compassionate leadership, meaning empathy coupled with an offer to help, you are making your organization a better place to work. And none of this is subject to legal scrutiny, it just makes your business better.


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